Directed by Joel Coen, starring Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini, Tony Shalhoub and Scarlett Johansson.

After the summery charms of 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?', director/producer duo Joel and Ethan Coen turn full circle with this slice of elegiac 40's noir. Barber Ed Crane (Thornton) doesn't say a lot, thinks too much and lets his wife Doris (McDormand) carry on with her boss Big Dave (Gandolfini) without even an angry stare between them. But every man has his breaking point, and Ed's arrives in the form of a toupee-wearing hustler who sits in his chair and convinces him that dry cleaning is the business of the future. Needing $10,000 to set up his own franchise, Ed blackmails Doris' lover with his seemingly idiotproof plan. But then Big Dave ends up in the morgue, Doris winds up in the pen and Ed must sit back, sigh and try to figure a way out of this self-made mess.

Beautifully shot in black and white, 'The Man Who Wasn't There' should have Coen fans smiling ruefully as the duo once again dig into American literature for their own eclectic ends. Having rewired the work of both Dashiell Hammett ('Miller's Crossing') and Raymond Chandler ('The Big Lebowski') in the past, this time they turn to James M Cain (author of 'The Postman Always Rings Twice' and 'Double Indemnity') and populate his USA with dumb criminals, dumber cops and, wait for it, visiting aliens.

The Coens have captured post war America perfectly here and, as befits Ed's profession, not one hair seems out of place on any character - throw this on TV on Saturday and channel surfers would just assume it's a 50-year-old matinee. There's also the usual crop of delicious supporting players who populate every Coen film, from Scarlett Johansson's sultry schoolgirl with a crush on Ed to Tony Shalhoub's manic lawyer who seems more intent on eating than saving Doris from the chair.

Towering above them all however, is Thornton in the lead role. Monotone in monochrome, when Ed talks it seems like someone is standing on his chest, expelling all the air. Thornton plays it utterly still and deadpan, narrating the barber's doomed adventure in a voice that suggests Ed spends all his spare time reading mass and in memoriam cards. It's a great performance and the perfect vehicle (a hearse?) for a Thornton tilt at the Oscars.

But just as Thornton's Ed is the film's greatest strength he's also part of its biggest weakness: the pacing. The first half hour is a snappy treat as the brothers begin their romp through genres, but thereafter it becomes like a state funeral in slow motion with Ed's voiceover helping you to nod off if you're not careful. By the close you're numb and disconnected from Ed's plight, but this being the Coens, they've even factored your apathy into the denouement, with Ed's explanation of the film's drudgery, hilarious and infuriating in equal measure.

This is the type of movie that makes people wish they could still light up in cinemas. It might not be the Coens at their best, but they still blow smoke in the faces of all the competition.

Harry Guerin